Extraordinary Scientist Walter Scott, Ph.D., Passes Away
Miller School to Celebrate His Life at February 4 Memorial on Medical Campus
Walter A. Scott, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who advanced the understanding of HIV/AIDS replication and resistance and nurtured generations of students and colleagues, passed away January 28 after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. Just days shy of his 70th birthday, he leaves legions of admirers who remember him as much for his patience, wisdom and humor as his seminal discoveries in the laboratory, the place he loved most.
“He enjoyed nature. He loved the Everglades and birding, but his first love was the laboratory,’’ said his wife of 42 years, Gwendolyn B. Scott, M.D., professor of pediatrics and Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology, who accompanied her husband to Miami in 1975. “He always was very interested in scientific questions and stimulated by thinking about and teaching science, but he had a wonderful sense of humor. He laughed often, he enjoyed life and everyone who spent time with him liked him. I don’t think he would have said so, but he had a major impact on many people’s lives.”
Of that, said Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Chair Sylvia Daunert, Ph.D., there is no doubt.
“Walter Scott dedicated his life to science, to this institution, and to advancing the careers of people across this country who continue to bring honor to both,” the Dean said. “That is as much a part of his legacy as his contributions to unraveling the mysteries of biochemical mechanisms. Together with his wife Gwen, they have transformed our ability to impact the AIDS epidemic.”
“He was the voice of reason in our department,” Daunert said. “He always had something wise to say and he could analyze any situation and come up with the right advice. He was the most popular mentor to junior faculty, and a trusted advisor to many. Our department was his life and, in addition to his many admirers, he made very important discoveries here. We will miss him dearly.”
Scott, who also held an appointment in microbiology and immunology, focused his career on the biochemical mechanisms of viral replication and antiviral drug resistance. He directed his own molecular virology research laboratory since his arrival at UM in 1975. He also directed the Pediatric Retrovirology Laboratory for the University’s NIH-sponsored pediatric AIDS clinical trials networks, and was a member of the NIH’s Virology Technical Advisory Committee for the Division of AIDS, and of its Review Panel for AIDS Discovery and Development of Therapeutics. He also chaired the department’s graduate program committee for 10 years.
“His lab never lacked eager Ph.D. students, whose research he mentored with skill and wisdom,” said William J. Whelan, D.Sc., professor of biochemistry and microbiology who as chair of the department recruited Scott to UM. “He ascended rapidly through the ranks to full professor, with tenure. And as far as I can recall, he has never been without external research support, a proud record.”
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Oregon, Scott earned his undergraduate degree at the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin, where he met his wife. He completed two post-doctoral fellowships, the first in the laboratory of Gordon Tompkins, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, and the other at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, under the tutelage of microbiologist Daniel Nathans, M.D., who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for the discovery of restrictive enzymes.
Joining the medical school faculty as an assistant professor of biochemistry, Scott immediately elevated the department’s expertise in the exploding area of recombinant DNA technology. “He fulfilled our best hopes, as a researcher, teacher and mentor,” Whelan said. “He was pivotal to our success in that regard. He led the change of direction of the Miami Winter Symposium to focus on gene technology, beginning with the 1977 event, which has continued to this day.”
In the earlier phase of his career, Scott and his team, which included senior research associate Suzanne Matsuura, M.S., discovered DNase I hypersensitive regions of simian virus 40 (SV40), which proved crucial for control of gene expression at the RNA level. Following publication of their discovery in the journal Cell, researchers in many labs vigorously pursued the study of DNase hypersensitivity, publishing hundreds of manuscripts on the topic.
In the second phase of his career, Scott concentrated his basic science studies on HIV/AIDS, complementing his wife’s clinical research in this field. In two critical papers, he and his team explained the biochemical mechanism for HIV resistance to AZT, the drug that helped turn AIDS from a fatal to a chronic disease. Their work also helped explain the clinical success of certain combinations of nucleotide analogs in the fight against the ever-changing virus.
So influential was Scott’s mentorship that a number of his students returned to Miami this week to pay their final respects. Among them was Peter Meyer, Ph.D., who collaborated with Scott on HIV-1’s mechanism of AZT resistance, and is now scientific and medical director of Shaw Science in Atlanta. He remembers how Scott and Matsuura transformed their lab into a “comfort zone” where students from around the world could feel at home. “I think the one thing that all of us who ever worked there took away was that they were like a second family,” Meyer said. “He wasn’t in your face. He was patient and provided gentle guidance. He was like a hand on your shoulder, not someone looking over your shoulder.”
“I thought of him as my American dad,” added Jahanshah Amin, Ph.D., now a professor at the University of South Florida who collaborated on Scott’s SV40 research. “He means that much to me, and to a lot of other people. He was a classic mentor. He kept his distance, but he watched us from afar, and always put the interests of students ahead of his.”
Scott also was known for his indefatigable work ethic, his dry humor, his love of jazz, and his sunny outlook. Rarely could a colleague or a student come to the Miller School and not find him already here. Rarely would he walk down a hall without whistling.
“It didn’t matter what time you came, he was working,” remembers Rebeca Geffin, Ph.D., a retired assistant professor of pediatrics who collaborated with both Scotts. “He worked on weekends and he rarely left before midnight. He dedicated his life to science and he loved it so passionately he transmitted his joy for science to those who worked with him.”
“This is a tremendous loss for our world but I have to smile when I talk about him, because as sad as this is, he was a great human being,” added Ana Garcia, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics, who has known the Scotts for three decades. “He loved science even more than teaching, but he gave his all to students and wanted them to be the best scientists they could be. If he wasn’t writing a grant, he was in the lab. The only thing he loved more than his work was his wife.”
In addition to his wife, Scott is survived by sister Nancy Koroloff, of Portland, Oregon, and brothers Jerry and Gene, both of Seattle, Washington. He was predeceased by his sister Virginia Bristol.
The viewing will be held on Sunday, February 3, from 2 to 6 p.m. at Van Orsdel Funeral Home, at 4600 S.W. Eighth Street, Coral Gables, FL, 33134, or 305-446-4412. The Miller School will celebrate Scott’s life at a memorial service at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, February 4, on the Schoninger Quadrangle.
Memorial donations may be made to the Dr. Walter A. Scott Biochemistry Endowment Fund at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, P.O. Box 016960 (R-100), Miami, FL 33101.